Nearly 27 years after the Bruce Timm-developed DC Animated Universe began in 1992 with Batman: The Animated Series, and 13 after it ended in 2006 with Justice League Unlimited, the so-called Timm-verse is … well, not quite back. Yet the new animated film Justice League vs. The Fatal Five is a reunion of talent, and style, but with a new class of heroes joining the iconic characters (and the actors who voiced them) for a largely satisfying adventure.
Executive produced by Timm, the film reunites Kevin Conroy, Susan Eisenberg, and George Newbern to voice, respectively, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman – roles for which their performances are definitive. Visually the movie also looks like the Justice League Unlimited animation style, complete with character Easter eggs that call back to heroes (and a couple Arkham inmates) of the classic Justice League and Batman: TAS. But the film does not appear to exist within the DC Animated Universe continuity, and actually eschews the characters’ previous history with some of the characters.
The return of the trinity of Conroy/Eisenberg/Newbern as DC’s holy trinity makes Justice League vs. Fatal Five worth a watch – and it gave this nerd giddy chills to hear them together again — but the creative team of director Sam Liu, and writers James Krieg, and Eric Carrasco, wisely use the classic heroes while placing the story focus on the new generation of Jessica Cruz as the latest Green Lantern, Thomas Kallor/Star Boy, and to a lesser extent Miss Martian.
The plot largely revolves around 31st century Legion of Super Heroes member Star Boy following of Mano, Tharok, and Persuader into the modern-day. Their arrival puts Superman and Mister Terrific (Kevin Michael Richardson) at odds with the villains from the future. Meanwhile, it lands Star Boy in Arkham because his mental stabilizing drugs are wearing off, and he is falling ill.
Yes, these are superheroes (as Star Boy frequently reminds Jessica), but they are also heroes battling mental illness, and PTSD. Without his meds, Star Boy loses the ability to think straight, and his memory slips away. Meanwhile, instead of a fearless Lantern, the trauma suffered from her past instills her with so much terror that she can barely leave her home each day.
The DC film deserves credit for handling the characters honestly, and without turning them into tropes. And for Cruz, specifically, it’s fascinating to see a Green Lantern whose willpower comes from being able to overcome her fears, not live without them. She would be well served by more of a backstory detailing her onscreen journey to the Lantern Corps, but what we do see is almost shocking in its violence – which is a strong narrative choice because it allows the audience to truly connect with her, and appreciate the random violence she once suffered.
Their mutual struggles bond Thomas and Jessica, and Elyes Gabel and Diane Guerrero (who is doing superb work as another mentally ill character, Crazy Jane, in the excellent Doom Patrol) deliver enjoyable performances. Their relationship happens fast, but it’s believable these two souls might quickly form a kinship with one another.
As for Miss Martian, she is something of a superpowered Robin to Batman (And in fact, she literally becomes the Timm-verse version of Tim Drake as a retort when Bats says he doesn’t like working with teenagers.) Voiced by Daniela Bobadilla, Miss Martian is both a fresh inclusion to the Justice League, but also a natural fit, and I hope we spend more time with her alongside established heroes.
As compelling as the new heroes are, and as comforting it is to reconnect with familiar ones, the villains are properly eeeevil, but lack real motivation. For much of the movie, the Fatal Five are a (still formidable) terrible trio. Their scheme to spring the imprisoned Emerald Empress is underdeveloped, and it’s tough to rationalize why it’s worth the effort (beyond for her boyfriend Mano, voiced by Philip Anthony-Rodriguez, who has a great villain voice). When the big bad plan is revealed in the final act, it’s rushed along – even though it results in a poignant sacrifice.
Still, the bad guys manage to kick a lot of super butts. And in an early scene, we see why a Justice League is so critical when baddies from the future can nearly take out Superman.
(Which leads to a great exchange between him and the all-business Batman, who doesn’t ask about his injured friend: “Yes, it’s healing slowly, and I’m in a fair amount of pain. Thanks for asking.”)
As it happens, there is a lot of humor in Justice League vs. Fatal Five, and it feels easy, like old friends reuniting, and riffing off one another. Batman delivers his usual dry humor, but also zings Mano with an especially good one. And Wonder Woman’s one-liners always feel couple with the promise of a throwdown. She has a great moment during the classic villain intros, where she cuts them off with a line about them being named dead men walking. Star Boy’s attempt to assuage a frightened pharmacist by changing out of his 31st Century costume in something more, let’s say freeing, is also quite funny.
And she does indeed throwdown with her sword, lasso, and fists. In fact, there is no shortage of action. From the opening scenes to the finale, the classic Justice League Unlimited animation style is implemented in fantastic battle sequences that reminded me once more how great that show was. With a relatively short 87-minute run time, I was left wanting more plot development – even at the sacrifice of some action.
The major disappointment with Justice League vs. Fatal Five is the missed opportunity to directly connect the story to the JLU series. Green Arrow, Green Lantern John Stewart, and Supergirl previously met Legion of Super Heroes Brainiac 5, and Bouncing Boy, and fought the Fatal Five, in the 2006 episode “Far From Home” (and Superman encountered members of the Legion in Superman: The Animated Series). It would have been an easy piece of fan service for the movie to officially become part of the DCAU/Timm-verse, and the plot seemed to be leading up to that in the final moments. Spoiler: It doesn’t. Though a letdown, it does not detract from the overall quality of JLvFF.
That said, Justice League vs. The Fatal Five is quite the fun ride that does more than rely on nostalgia for Justice League Unlimited, but instead builds upon it with interesting new characters, and a reunion with old favorites.